6 tips to be your own health advocate

The Latin root for the word “doctor”, docere, means “to show, to teach, or to cause to know“. Notably, the word doctor does not have any root-meanings of “dictate, command, or control”. Your doctor is not ‘the boss of you’, and there are many reasons why you should be your own health advocate.
While medical doctors are key when it comes to emergency situations – car accidents, broken bones or raging infections, they may be less helpful when it comes to non-urgent, chronic ailments like allergies, eczema or pre-diabetes. Increasingly, it seems that there are fewer available doctors, or of the ones who are available, they have less time to address your specific issues, and don’t take the time to show, teach or cause you to know the details of whatever might ail you.
That is why it is important for you (and not your doctor) to be the one who is in charge of your health – nobody knows your body better than you. Here are 6 tips to help you to be in charge and advocate for your own health:
1. Consider your doctor as one of your partners in healthcare
Your doctor should be your healthcare guide and not your sickcare authority. Before accepting a drug prescription, ask your doctor what you can do for yourself. Many chronic and long-term conditions can be successfully treated or greatly improved by lifestyle changes. Eating better by eliminating processed foods and common inflammatory foods will help overall health. So will regular exercise and reducing stress. It’s easy enough for a doctor to dismiss you and say, “Just eat better, exercise more and reduce stress” – these are well-intentioned but vague notions in improving health, and if your doctor cannot take the time to expound on that line of advice, it may just be that you need additional healthcare partners.
Consider seeing to a naturopathic doctor or a medical doctor who specializes in functional medicine, since they have a more integrative approach to healing, seeking the root of your problem. A nutritionist can help you find a way of eating that works for you, a personal trainer can help you find ways to better incorporate exercise regularly, and a psychologist or even a yoga instructor may be the one you need to help you reduce stress through meditation or simply letting you be heard.
2. Take your own notes and be prepared to present your own thorough medical history
The best way to help yourself is to present as much information as you can to your healthcare partners. A thorough medical professional should ask you all the pertinent questions, but be prepared if they drop the ball. For example, if you’re concerned about a chronic issue, a good place to start is a food and symptom diary. This will help your healthcare practitioner see any patterns between what you eat and how you feel.
If you’ve had the same doctor for many years, make sure they know of any major changes that you’ve experienced in your health or diet. It could very well be that you’ve gained and lost twenty pounds since you’ve seen your doctor last – on paper though, it will look as if nothing has changed.
It’s also important to be aware of your own family history and update your doctor about any major developments in the health of your immediate family (e.g. parents or siblings) as it may impact your genetic predisposition for certain conditions. If your doctor overlooks these important aspects of your health, make sure to bring it up or ask them why they don’t think these things are important.
At your appointments, ask for printed records of test results and/or take detailed notes yourself. Even if you don’t understand the numbers or results at first, it’s better to have this information and be able to do your own research later.
3. Be willing to invest both time and money in your own health
If you want to optimize your health, then you’ll need to spend either time or money or both to achieve it. Healthy living comes down to lifestyle choices that require time (e.g. preparing food yourself, keeping a food/symptom diary, exercising regularly) or money (e.g. choosing better quality food, getting nutritional supplements or seeing additional healthcare providers).
In our current medical system, the sad fact is that most people aren’t willing to put the time or money in to improve their health. They’ll happily go to the doctor to get their “quick-fix” prescription, rather than wanting to get to the root of a problem. If this isn’t you, make sure your doctor knows that you are willing to put in the work and make your health a priority.
4. Do your own research to be a health advocate
With just a few search terms and hitting “enter”, we can access a wealth of information. Whether you’re looking for a new healthcare provider or looking for information about a chronic condition, a good place to start is with an internet search. Be aware of course, that not everything you read on the internet is true, but it’s certainly a way to give you a crash course in a health topic.
If you’re researching information that contradicts what your doctor has told you, don’t be afraid to print it out and have your doctor read it. If they are truly interested in improving patient-health, then they should welcome new knowledge and research, or if they disagree with the information you’ve brought, then they can tell you why.
Here’s an example of why it’s important to do your own research. Recently, I asked my doctor for a blood test – I was unsure whether this test would be covered by my provincial health care plan (OHIP here in Ontario), but my doctor told me flatly that such a test was only done for clinical research, and did not exist as regular patient testing. Well, with a bit of googling, I found a list of blood tests that aren’t covered by OHIP, and calling my local laboratory I was able to find out that the test I wanted would only cost $35. In this case, my doctor certainly did not have up-to-date information, and to my dismay, this doctor neither admitted the lack of knowledge nor apologized for the oversight.
Looking for a good place to start your research with a Real Food approach? I recommend Weston A. Price Foundation’s list of resources. From a paleo/primal lean, Mark’s Daily Apple has informative, well-researched information that is written for the layman, and Chris Kresser has detailed, technical information on a variety of health topics. If you’re no stranger to reading journal articles, you can always dive into the deep-end and do a search on PubMed (you may not be able to access full versions of all articles, but abstracts are readily available).
5. Be willing to question your doctor’s knowledge
Here’s something most people don’t realize: doctors aren’t educated in diet and nutrition. If you’re lucky, your doctor may have taken a single course on nutrition during medical school. If your doctor is recommending that you replace your natural fats with easily-oxidizing margarine, then be willing to question their knowledge on the subject. Ask where they got their information or if they’ve read any recent journal articles on the subject, and judge for yourself if their knowledge on the subject overrides your own research. Your doctor is more educated than you are on many levels, but remember that they are human and can have gaps in their knowledge, whether they admit it or not.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion or change doctors
If you’re willing to go the extra mile in finding a good babysitter, hairdresser or mechanic, shouldn’t you put the same effort in finding a doctor or alternative healthcare provider who works for you? Your doctor should be working for you. You are the patient. You are the client. You are the one paying for their service (either directly or indirectly).
If you don’t feel that your doctor is listening to you, or helping you achieve optimal health in a way that you are comfortable with, then perhaps it is time to find another doctor.
Have you experienced less-than-stellar medical treatment or have you had to advocate strongly for your own health? Have you been prescribed medication or treatment that you didn’t feel right about following? Let us know in the comments.
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